There are competing narratives about what’s going on in the Ukraine and why, and it behooves us as citizens to expose ourselves to a range of these before forming our own deeper understanding of what’s happening there and what should be done about it. One-sided information and stories lead us to make unwise decisions, as the results of a number of America’s recent wars suggest. Having institutions – from good journalism to citizen deliberative councils – that do this for the society as whole would result in wiser policy and a better world.
The Ukrainian crisis provides a rich opportunity to consider the complexity of it (and similar situations) and to reflect on the often over-simplified narratives promoted by various sides and on the consequences of such narratives.
Most mainstream press I’ve seen in the U.S. covering the Ukraine crisis recently has focused on the impressive, determined, and seemingly successful popular revolt against a corrupt oligarch and on Russia’s invasion to counter the West-leaning thrust of that revolution on its borders. Although acknowledging the cultural diversity of the Ukraine, this coverage seldom gives due treatment to the roles played by hundreds of years of Russian involvement in, settlement in, and changing relationships with this region, especially Russia’s extensive military and economic involvement in Crimea and its nearby territory. There is also minimal coverage of the neo-Nazi groups and American government and business interests among the many forces involved in the revolution and its subsequent coup. Perhaps most ironically, journalists, pundits and public officials react with horror at Russia’s putting its proclaimed interests ahead of international law and norms while ignoring the long history of the same behavior on the part of the U.S. (to say nothing of previous empires).
There seem to be few angels in this crisis – and the activities and stories of those few are often being manipulated by partisan interests for their own purposes. It is understandable that such a situation has “sides” and that the partisans of those sides weave compelling stories out of selected facts (and usually some falsehoods and half-truths) to justify their positions. But to make wise policy decisions – as citizens and officials – we need to develop deeper-than-partisan understandings of what’s going on. Oversimplified partisan journalism does not help us in that. And when it leads to or justifies war and/or other harms, it is actively dangerous.
In the face of extremely rapid changes in both the situation in the Ukraine and in its media coverage, I think it is risky to attempt to summarize what’s going on and why. Although many people from many perspectives have tried to do so – some with the intention of enlightening us, others intending to recruit us to their favored positions – I will try to refrain here. I do not know enough, nor am I committed to the work of clarifying the endless nuances of the situation.
What I do offer here is some references to counter the one-sidedness of so much of what I’ve read in the U.S. mainstream media about this crisis. I do not assert that my references are truer or more relevant than other essays and reports. What I do suggest is that they offer information and perspectives that need to be taken seriously when making decisions about how to respond.
Beyond that, I think it would be highly beneficial to have a randomly selected group of citizens review these and other materials and interview a variety of partisan and nonpartisan experts for a week or so and, once well informed, to come up with policy recommendations that more of us could trust.
I like to think that such a group might offer us some overall understandings like these:
- We should apply the Golden Rule to our foreign policy – treating other people and countries with the respect and consideration with which we would like to be treated.
- We know that different cultures and histories shape the fears, expectations, and aspirations of different peoples, but we also know that there are universal human needs and that we can try to understand them and do our best to address them in any conflict or relationship we have with others.
- We know that our country could use its significant power to help develop a democratic form of international law to which we, too, are willing to conform.
- We know that if such approaches had guided our foreign policy for the last decades or centuries, the world would be in a much better state, our nation would be more secure, and what is happening in the Ukraine would involve far less confusion and harms on all sides.
- We also know that we can begin such a more enlightened foreign policy now, and must.
Of course, I don’t know if such a group of well-informed ordinary people would come to such conclusions. But I would like to see more co-intelligent political and economic systems which would make such wisdom more possible and likely…
But today, lacking citizen deliberative councils and other such innovations to help us, it is up to each of us to make what sense we can of it all, trying to see beyond the manipulations being applied to us from every side.
Blessings on our Journey through the maze….
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Among the many factors that the dominant narrative omits or minimizes are these, which are used to justify other narratives which should be taken into account as well:
A. Alleged U.S. hypocrisy in official descriptions of Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis, including:
- A long list of U.S. foreign military interventions, many still ongoing, in violation of international law, often on trumped up charges (like the now infamous accusations of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” used to justify the invasion of that country, and the U.S. campaign of drone assassinations).
- A long list of U.S. support for dictatorships, oligarchs, and violence against subjugated people when it serves alleged U.S. interests, especially the interests of U.S.-based major corporations.
- The U.S. government’s manipulation of popular movements to overthrow governments it doesn’t like – including ones elected in elections ruled fair by international observers (as in Venezuela and Ukraine).
- Other examples of America’s violation and disregard of international laws, policies, and agreements, ranging from Indian treaties to UN declarations on Israel and Palestine.
- The likelihood that, were the U.S. in Russia’s shoes, it would behave similarly – for example strongly resisting any Russian support for Cuba demanding that America abandon its Guantanimo naval base on mainland Cuba.
B. The history of regional interstate relations, including:
- The long historic relations between Russia and Eastern Ukraine, and its extensive Russian-speaking population – for example, that Crimea was part of Russia for more than 150 years until the mid-twentieth century and the fact that a 1999 Ukrainian-Russian agreement allows Russia to have 25,000 troops in Crimea. Shortly before the Russian military intervention, the new Ukrainian government passed laws limiting the use of the Russian language, which generated widespread concern among the Russian-speaking population (who are a majority is some parts of Eastern Ukraine, although a minority in the Ukraine as a whole). This was part of the stimulus behind Crimea “inviting” Russian intervention and proposing secession from the Ukraine.
- The anti-Russian neo-Nazi nationalists who played a major role in the popular movement’s shift into violence. This spooks the Russians especially in light of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis in WWII, a war which devastated Russian society and industry more than any of the other Allies and still haunts Russian foreign policy.
C. The role of “spheres of influence”, economic interests, and security concerns
- The U.S. has a history of surrounding Russia with missiles, military bases, and former Russian allies being recruited into Western alliances. The WWII fears noted above make Russia hungry for “buffer states” between it and the often-antagonistic NATO forces.
- The last 15-20 years of neo-conservative intellectuals, pundits, and public officials advocating a “New American Century” foreign policy which justifies America exercising its power anywhere in the world at will.
- Russia and the U.S./EU have competing economic interests in Crimea, especially regarding the oil and gas resources and pipelines that run through the area, currently controlled by Russia and heavily used by energy-hungry EU. Some see this (and the recent involvement of major oil companies in the area) as the primary dynamic underlying the current conflict.
ARTICLES USEFUL IN UNDERSTANDING OTHER NARRATIVES THAN THE MAINSTREAM AMERICAN ONE